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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

An itch for a niche

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

One lazy weekend morning recently I happened across the old black-and-white film "Call Northside 777" on Turner Movie Classics.

Having thought I had digested just about each and every newspaper-related movie ever made, I was surprised to find the lead character was a Chicago newspaperman played by Jimmy Stewart. Believe me, any movie with those three elements -- Chicago, newspapers and Jimmy Stewart -- truly has me (wait for it ...) at hello.

Faster than you could sputter out "Merry Christmas, you beautiful old building and loan" in your best Jimmy Stewart impression, his character is embroiled in a crime drama in which he finds himself in need of a telephone at several dramatic junctures. Ironic, of course, since the very title of the movie is, itself, a telephone number.

After the second or third time Stewart, as Chicago Times columnist P.J. McNeal, asks to use the phone on someone's nearby desk, the youngest viewer in my living room half-jokingly groans: "Why doesn't he just use his cellphone?"

Of course, the movie was set in 1932 and filmed in 1948, so touch-tone phones had yet to be invented, let alone cellphones or smartphones. But it points up a great example of how far technology has indeed come. The cellphone has taken the drama out of such situations, and countless movie plots, while basically eliminating the pay phone industry in the process.

And yes, video may have killed the radio star, as the song by The Buggles (the first video ever shown by MTV incidentally) suggests, but it did not destroy radio itself. Radio has found a way to co-exist with TV. Likewise, the Internet may have wounded the newspaper business but it remains our mission to develop a vital co-existence with our online alter egos.

Trust me, as we speak, every newspaper from Cape Cod to Cape Girardeau to the Cape of Good Hope is trying to figure out that niche.

For as long as I can remember, newspapers have been a part of my daily life, right up there with air, water and McDonald's iced tea. Things have changed in the industry, certainly. There were four, count 'em four, daily papers in Chicago when I was growing up, The Tribune and Sun-Times in the morning and The Daily News (my personal favorite) and Herald-American (later The Chicago Today tabloid) each afternoon. Now there are but two ... barely.

One of the perks of my after-school job at Wisconsin Farms delicatessen on Roosevelt Road out in the suburbs was a daily chance to peruse all four papers in between slicing rye bread, baloney and corned beef. Heck, I thought every newspaper in the world had a Mike Royko. It was then and there that I realized newspapers not only can inform, they can enlighten and entertain as the printer's ink rubs off on your fingers.

Old technology or new, we have to be able to continue that tradition. I cannot accept that newspapers and print journalism are a dying breed, although I wholeheartedly agree with DePauw Prof. Kevin Howley's recent "Five Signs of Shoddy Journalism" column on what passes for "news" these days.

Inherent in the issue is a generational divide in the technology field. The twentysomethings in our midst are virtually addicted to their phones and can't possibly go more than 30 seconds without glancing at their screen for the latest text, tweet or email. Small wonder where they get what they see as news.

The generation gap came to life for me last week while talking with a 75-year-old acquaintance about to retire.

Someone suggested she would now have plenty of time for surfing the 'Net.

"Everything may have gone to the computer age," she said, "but I'm never going to own one ..."

You know, I think I once said the same thing about a cellphone.